November 17, 2008 at 1:00 am

Speed trap: Drivers beware

Traffic fines help fill city coffers

Officials increasingly target drivers to bolster budgets

Officer Chris Egan uses a radar gun on the southbound lanes on the Southfield Freeway near Outer Drive. (Robin Buckson / The Detroit News)

Grim economic conditions are forcing some communities to rely on traffic cops to increase revenue by writing more tickets, police and elected officials say.

"When I first started in this job 30 years ago, police work was never about revenue enhancement," Utica Police Chief Michael Reaves said. "But if you're a chief now, you have to look at whether your department produces revenues. That's just the reality nowadays."

A Detroit News analysis of court and police records from 2002-07 shows many Metro Detroit police departments have drastically increased the number of moving violations issued in what some people say is an effort to offset budget shortfalls caused by the sluggish economy.

Michigan has cut revenue sharing to communities by $3 billion over the past six budget years, a blow that's been exacerbated by skyrocketing costs and dwindling property values. Taylor Mayor Cameron Priebe, whose community has lost more than $10 million in state revenue sharing the past six years, says the tough conditions have caused city officials to turn to the Police Department for income.

"A portion of the tickets our officers write helps pay their salaries, but the rest is profit for the city," said Priebe, a former Taylor police officer. " 'Profit' may not be the right word to use in government, but that's pretty much what it is.

"Obviously, revenue isn't the only reason our officers are out there -- but I wouldn't be telling the truth if I said it wasn't a consideration."

Drop-off seen in some areas

Not all area police departments are writing more violations, and several communities have had sharp decreases since 2002. Many of those drop-offs can be attributed to downsizing, as Michigan has lost more than 1,800 police officers since 2001 to layoffs and attrition.

Pontiac, for instance, has lost 61 percent of its police force since 2005 to layoffs that have shrunk the department from 170 to 65 officers. The number of traffic tickets issued last year was down 58 percent from 2004, the year before the layoffs started.

"I've lost more than half my force, so obviously the number of tickets we write has also gone down," Pontiac Police Chief Val Gross said.

But in several communities in Metro Detroit -- which last year was named by the National Motorists Association as the worst metro area in the United States for speed traps -- the ticket increases have been extreme.

In 18 communities, the number of moving violations written has jumped by 50 percent or more over the past six years, and 11 of those municipalities have had increases of 90 percent or higher during that time.

Officer gains notoriety

Warren Officer David Kanapsky came under national media scrutiny recently when it was revealed he had written about 5,000 traffic tickets in 2007. Kanapsky, whose prolific ticket writing was highlighted in July on ABC's 20/20, accounted for nearly 10 percent of the city's ticket writing last year, when there were 54,100 tickets handed out in Warren -- a 20 percent increase over the 44,809 tickets written in 2002.

But Warren is hardly alone:

  • In Romulus, there were 12,040 tickets written last year, which represented a 136 percent jump from the 5,091 violations written in 2002.

  • The number of violations in Plymouth rose from 440 in 2002 to 2,584 in 2007, a 487 percent jump.

  • In Detroit, there were 126,007 traffic tickets written in 2002, and 245,249 written in 2007.

  • Southfield police wrote 13,724 tickets in 2002; in 2007 they wrote 31,795 tickets for an increase of 131 percent.

    The population has increased in many Metro Detroit suburbs in recent years, which could explain the higher number of traffic tickets.

    But there have been huge increases even in communities that have been largely built out for years. For instance, Dearborn Heights had a 60 percent jump in tickets written from 2002-07, while Livonia had a 49 percent jump.

    Most money stays local

    Most of the revenue from tickets written by State Police and county sheriffs goes into a state fund that's distributed to libraries across Michigan. But a huge portion of the money from tickets issued by most municipal police departments, determined by a complex formula, stays in those communities.

    Municipalities must send $40 of each fine to the Michigan Justice Training Fund, which helps cover police training costs. The percentage of ticket revenue that communities may keep after that depends on the class of its district court, although most Metro Detroit communities keep all the money that's left over after the $40 assessment.

    "When elected officials say, 'We need more money,' they can't look to the department of public works to raise revenues, so where do they find it? Police departments," said James Tagnanelli, president of the Police Officers Association of Michigan union.

    Some dispute premise

    While some police officials say there is more pressure to increase revenue, others say it's not true. Livonia Police Chief Robert Stevenson insists he has never been pressured by city officials to write more tickets.

    Stevenson pointed out that traffic accidents have dropped 33 percent since 2003, the year he instituted a program of increased traffic enforcement.

    "In Livonia, we average less than one homicide a year, but we have 14 or 15 people killed on our roads," Stevenson said. "Most homicides take place behind closed doors, so there's not much the police can do about them, anyway. If you truly want to make a difference, you need to put your resources into traffic patrols."

    Still, Tagnanelli said he's hearing more complaints than ever from officers statewide who say they're being forced to issue more moving violations.

    "Is there more pressure being applied to write tickets? Of course there is," Tagnanelli said. "I'm hearing that all the time now from officers. It's gotten much worse over the past five-six years."

    Tickets upset drivers

    Critics say the crackdown on motorists causes a rift between citizens and the police, and ties up officers who should be concentrating on preventing crime.

    "It's getting ridiculous," said Jack Walker, a former Clarkston resident who was given two speeding tickets within a few weeks of each other last year in Orion Township.

    "Police are using us as their fundraiser, and it's not right. They have more important things to do."

    Trenton Police Sgt. Richard Lyons agreed.

    "The people we count on to support us and help us when we're on the road are the ones who end up paying the bills, and they're ticked off about it," Lyons said.

    "We might was well just go door-to-door and tell people, 'Slide us $100 now, since your 16-year-old is going to end up paying us anyway when he starts driving.' You can't blame people for getting upset.

    "No politician wants to be the one to raise taxes, but if the community needs more money they should go ahead and raise taxes," Lyons said.

    "At least that's more honorable than chasing down cars for doing five miles over the speed limit."

    Said Reaves: "If someone is blowing through a subdivision doing 70 mph while children are playing, nobody is going to complain about the police giving that guy a ticket.

    "There obviously is a need to patrol the roads -- it's just a matter of allowing your officers to use their judgment, rather than having them write tickets for every single violation."

    You can reach George Hunter at (313) 222-2134 or ghunter@detnews.com">ghunter@detnews.com.

  • First-class courts cover a county, and are funded by the county. There are no first-class courts in Wayne, Oakland or Macomb counties, but Livingston and St. Clair counties have first-class district courts.
  • Second-class courts cover part of a county, and are funded by the county. There are six second-class courts in Oakland and Macomb counties, which cover Memphis, Richmond, New Baltimore, in Macomb County; and, in Oakland County, Auburn Hills, Clarkston, Clawson, Lake Angelus, Novi, Rochester, Rochester Hills, South Lyon, Troy, Walled Lake and Wixom; and the townships of Addison, Brandon, Commerce, Groveland, Highland, Holly, Independence, Lyon, Milford, Novi, Oxford, Orion, Oakland, Rose, Springfield and White Lake. All other Oakland County communities are served by third-class courts.
  • Third-class courts cover only the communities they serve, and are funded by those communities. All the district courts in Wayne County are third-class.
    Source: State Court Administrator's Office

  • Coming Tuesday

  • Police chiefs often deny ticket quotas exist, but motorists, police officers and union officials say otherwise.
  • There are ways to beat a speeding ticket, thanks to a recently enacted state law.